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THEY STOOD ON THE SIDELINES AT ALABAMA'S SPRING GAME, four players who had formed the backbone of two national championship teams: Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower. Within days these four would be selected (in that order) in the first round of the NFL draft. Their appearance in street clothes at the A-Day game reinforced the fact that the 2012 Crimson Tide team will feature more new faces in important places than any other during Nick Saban's six-year tenure in Tuscaloosa.
"We're going to be a young team, but we're also going to be a very talented team," says center Barrett Jones, the reigning Outland Trophy winner. "We know that the stakes are high this year. We have an opportunity to do something that not many have done in college football history."
Indeed, Alabama could become just the second school in more than six decades to win three national titles in four years (the other: Nebraska, in 1994, '95 and '97). The strength of the Tide will be its offensive line, which features three potential first-round NFL draft picks: Jones, left tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack. This talented front wall will be ripping open holes for junior tailback Eddie Lacy, who as a backup for the last two seasons has rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 TDs on 151 carries. "Eddie is a proven player to all of us," says quarterback AJ McCarron. "It's exciting to think about what he'll be able to do with more touches and being more involved in the offense."
Alabama's powerful defense has new blood in sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest (a former five-star recruit who'll replace Hightower at middle linebacker and call the defensive signals in Saban's complex scheme) and in sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri (the defensive star of the spring game with a pick six and a fumble recovery). "Our young players need to keep developing," Saban says. "Guys like Trey and Vinnie had good springs, but what will they do now? We still have a long way to go before we get to where we're hoping to be, but overall we are better off now than we were when we were coming off the 2009 season"—in which Alabama won the national title.
In that 2010 season the Tide went 10--3 and finished 10th in the nation. This year they have something more on their minds: history.
COACH Nick Saban (6th year) 51--12 (34--9 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Doug Nussmeier
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Kirby Smart